Do Church Employees Need Employment Contracts?

It is not uncommon for churches and ministers to question whether an employment contract is needed for employment positions within a church. There is a high level of trust when hiring a minister or other person for employment at a church, which often leads to the false assumption that a written agreement is not needed. It’s important to understand a well-drafted employment contract is not meant to show a lack of trust or confidence but can make sure each side is clear on expectations for the employment relationship. For this reason, using employment contracts with church employees is not only highly recommended, it is a great way to ensure the church and its staff are on the same page from the start of employment.  Below are 3 reasons churches and church leaders should strongly consider having a church law attorney prepare or review an employment contract:

  1. Moral, Ethical, and Theological expectations can be made clear. To a greater degree than with most employment positions, churches have high expectations for how church employees will interact with others outside the office. It is best to make certain these expectations are made as clear as possible from the start of employment. In our social media world, what church employees say and do in their personal lives matters and can quickly become a source of controversy or possible embarrassment. Likewise, when there are major theological positions that need to be shared between a church and its staff members, those matters should be described as clear as possible so everyone knows what areas are “non-negotiable.” It’s best to clarify these issues from the start of employment so a lack of understanding does not result in hurt feelings or disagreements that distract from the church’s core purposes.
  2. Job Duties outlined.  One of the worst things that can happen in a church setting is for a minster or church to quickly realize everyone is not on the same page as to what tasks need to be prioritized. For Pastors in particular, there are many responsibilities that come with the position, making prioritization of duties very important. For instance, if a given minister is expected to handle all funerals or weddings at the church, that should be made clear up front. Likewise, if communicating with a younger demographic is part of the position, it may be required that the person be proficient with technology and active on social media. While most of these items will likely be discussed in a job interview, incorporating a thorough job description into a formal employment agreement is the best way to ensure key duties and job expectations are not lost in translation.
  3. Work Hours and Salary.  There is probably no job that has more inconsistent hours than a ministry position. A quiet week can quickly become all-consuming when a death or crisis occurs in the congregation. Unfortunately, problems can result when there is no clarity between the minister and church as to what is expected from an hourly perspective. For instance, if a Pastor conducts a funeral on Saturday, is he then entitled to take those hours off during the week? What about “comp time” for the youth pastor who gets little sleep after spending a week leading teenagers at summer camp?  As much as possible, it is best to lay out these expectations from the start so neither party feels taken advantage of down the road.  For obvious reasons, churches and ministers must also be clear about salary needs and expectations. It is not unusual for a committee, or even one key leader in the church, to make certain promises to a candidate upon hire, but then another committee or other leaders in the church have no idea what was originally promised or said. The best way to avoid these serious misunderstandings is with a clear written agreement.

Just like in the corporate world, church employment agreements do not have to require a set number of years or months and can be arranged to allow either side to terminate employment at will.  However, an indefinite number of years does not mean the basic terms of employment need to be left open for confusion. Church employees need to be free to focus on ministry and not looking over their shoulder questioning whether they are meeting their job expectations.

Churches have unique concerns and expectations in the employment context, so it is best to have a church law attorney review or prepare employment agreements whenever possible. Adam Hocutt helps churches and staff members in reviewing and preparing employment agreements for churches of all sizes.

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